Natural Protection

Some of the very best protection is already in place, just waiting for you. It's natural protection: trees and bushes, horns and flakes, chockstones, boulders, and other natural features. The leader can save the fancy hardware for later in the climb. Only the simplest tools—runners and carabiners— are needed to take advantage of these gifts from Mother Nature.

The basic technique for using all natural protection is identical: position a runner around the natural feature, clip a carabiner to the runner, clip the rope into the carabiner. And that's it.

Some things to pay attention to in using natural protection:

• Test every potential piece of natural protection before you trust your life to it. Take a close look at every tree and every rock. Does the tree look healthy? Does the rock appear unfractured, without cracks or other weaknesses? Carefully push them and pull them, tap and prod, kick and shake. Is everything solid?

• Remember the climbers down below as you're kicking and prodding. Be careful not to dislodge anything.

• TVy to identify the type and composition of a rock feature as clues to its strength.

• Check to see if the protection will hold a pull in only one direction, or if it can take a tug from multiple directions. That is, is the protection one-directional or multidirectional? Multidirectional protection, such as a tree, is best because it can withstand an outward and upward pull.

• Choose an appropriate method of attaching the runner (fig. 10-2). You'll usually start by looping the runner around or over the natural feature. A runner that is looped around is secured by using a

Attaching Carabiner Rock
Fig. 10-2. Methods of attaching a runner to natural protection: a, secured around a tree using a girth hitch; h, looped around a tree with the ends clipped together with a carabiner; c, re tied around a tree trunk; d, attached to a rock horn using a clove hitch; e, looped over a flake.

girth hitch (fig. 10-2a) or by connecting the two ends with a carabiner (fig. 10-2b). If you clip the ends together with a carabiner, be sure the runner is long enough to permit the carabiner to extend out from the natural feature; this reduces the chance that the weight of a fall will be taken directly on the carabiner gate. Another method of attachment is to untie a runner and then retie it around the protection (fig. 10-2c). With rock horns, you also have the option of attaching the runner with a clove hitch (fig. 10-2d).

• Position carabiners with the gates down and facing out to lessen the chance that the rock will force the gate open during a fall. If there's danger of a carabiner being forced open, use a locking carabiner or two carabiners with opposing gates.

• Pad all sharp edges that the runner may touch.


Trees and large bushes offer the most common and obvious natural protection. To judge their trustworthiness, look for vigorous growth and a well-developed root system. Avoid trees or bushes rooted in shallow soil, gravel, talus, or cracks. If you can identify the tree or bush, you may then know if it's one that tends to be shallow-rooted or especially brittle. Shake it. If the dirt or roots move, avoid it.

Select the largest tree or clump of bushes possible. Be wary of bushes, in general, and back them up with another point of protection if there's any doubt.

To reduce the leverage on a tree or clump of bushes—leverage that could bend or break them— it's best to position the runner as low as possible. However, sometimes it's desirable on a large tree to place the attachment point higher on the trunk, or even on a large branch, to avoid putting a sharp bend in the rope. If the runner is placed on a branch, keep it close to the trunk to reduce the leverage.


Horns are the most common type of natural rock protection. They also are called spikes, knobs, bosses, chicken heads, and rock bollards. They're small protrusions in the rock, and they come in handy.

Flakes are narrow pieces of rock partially detached from the main rock, and they also provide natural protection (fig. 10-2e).

Be aware that a horn or flake that was solid when you climbed the same pitch a year ago might have been weakened by frost action over the winter. Test the rock by pushing or pulling, gently at first, then with more force. Finally, hit it with your hand or foot and listen for a hollow sound. If it moves or creates a hollow sound, avoid it. If you use a girth hitch to secure the runner to a horn or flake, be sure it's placed so it can cinch up tight (fig. 10-3).

Horns and flakes frequently offer protection in only one direction. The runner may stay in place if there is a downward tug, but come loose if the pull is upward or sideways.

There are several ways to help overcome this problem. Attach some extra climbing gear to the runner in order to weight it and help keep it in place. Use a longer runner (or extend a short run-


Fig. 10-3. Runner attached to a horn: a, correct, attached by a correctly placed girth hitch. Girth hitch will cinch properly; b, incorrect, attached by an incorrectly placed girth hitch. Girth hitch will not cinch.

ner), a trick that will minimize the chance that rope movement will pull the runner off the rock. Place opposing protection that can take an upward pull. (We'll get into the theory and practice of opposing protection later in this chapter.)


A chockstone is a rock wedged in a crack. It can make a great protection point—if it passes a few tests. Does it have substantial contact with the sides of the crack? Is the chockstone, and the walls of the crack, of a non-friable type of rock (that won't tend to crumble and let the chockstone fall)? Does the crack narrow below the chockstone, causing it to be well-wedged? Will it jam even tighter if it must withstand the force of a fall?

Arrange a runner around the chockstone so the runner can't be pinched or jammed in case the chockstone comes under such a load. Be sure it can't be pulled sideways through a point of contact between the chockstone and rock. If you choose to simply clip the ends of the runner together with a carabiner, twist one end before clipping in. This ensures that if the runner does pull through one side of the chockstone, the carabiner won't drop off (fig. 10-4a). You also can attach the runner by a girth hitch around the point of contact between chockstone and rock, which can help hold the chockstone in place (fig. 10-4b).

You may be able to use an artificial chock to help thread the runner behind the chockstone.

Sometimes you can move a chockstone to a spot in the crack where it's more secure. Be careful you don't knock it loose and send it hurtling down the climbing route.


A boulder, or a block detached from the main body of rock, can be used as a protection point if it's well-embedded or too heavy to move. Steer clear of boulders that look chancy—ones that lean, are perched precariously, or rest (temporarily) on a slope.

A runner is usually looped around the boulder to create the protection placement. Keep the runner low to reduce leverage and to keep it from being

Fig. 10-4. Attaching a runner to a chockstone: a, looped around a chockstone; h, using a girth hitch on one side of a chockstone.

pulled off the top of the boulder. Use extreme care in using a boulder as a protection point because of the danger it poses to others if it comes loose.


Threaded protection can be created from natural tunnels (fig. 10-5), arches, or the contact point between two blocks of rocks. If the rock feature is strong, the protection is usually a good choice because it is multidirectional; it can take a pull in any direction.

If you decide to use the contact point between two rocks, be sure the rocks can't move under the force of a fall. However, it's often difficult to test threaded protection, and you will usually have to rely on visual inspection and good judgment.


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Fig. 10-5. Creating a threaded placement using a rock tunnel

Continue reading here: Artificial Protection

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